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Work in the U.K.

A BUNAC Program Veteran's Tale

By Lori Cloutier

During the summer following my college sophomore year, my friend and I wanted to go overseas. The problem was age-old—money. How were we to fund a whole summer abroad and survive? The answer was BUNAC (www.bunac.org), The British Universities North America Club, which provides British work visas for students from the U.S. for up to six months.

The visa made it legal for me to work anywhere in Britain. The administrative cost of $250 was very reasonable. Planning to leave for Britain in mid-May, we applied for the work permits in March and received them in mid-April. BUNAC also sent us a whole packet of prep materials to help us get ready.

Preparations

We attended an information session about BUNAC and heard tips from past participants and what their trips and jobs entailed. We bought International Student Identification Cards for $22 that offered basic insurance and allowed us to get a great discount on a flight from Council Travel. The BUNAC handbook also listed a few hostels that could guarantee a place to stay for BUNACers but you must call about a week ahead.

Settling Down in London

My friend and I said a tearful goodbye to our families and were off on our journey. We rounded up our luggage at Gatwick airport and somehow got a train to Victoria Station. Never had I felt so free—an ocean away from home, all my belongings with me, and able to go anywhere. It was the best.

The city was beautiful and strange: black “cabbies,” as taxis are called in Britain, double decker buses, uniform townhouses, and drivers on the left. We had so much to discover and a whole summer to do it! We settled into our hotel and went out to look for a flat. We found that most apartments charge rent by the week, and some wanted a month plus the first week’s rent down as a deposit. If the flat was 100 pounds per week ($150—average to inexpensive), that would have been 400 pounds ($600) down, plus the first week which would be a total of 500 pounds ($750) just for the first payment. As a flat proved to be far too expensive for us, we decided to look for work with housing included, like some pub or hotel jobs.

Finding a Job and Housing

At the BUNAC orientation the next day, we learned how to register with the Jobcentre and a few other simple things to make sure we were legal to work. There were about 20 other students at the orientation, all BUNACers, all as jobless and homeless as we were. It was comforting to meet others in the same situation. The BUNAC office had many listings of employers wanting to hire BUNACers and of available apartments. We called dozens of places for jobs, mostly pubs and restaurants. Some positions were already filled; others wanted us to bring them a resume and they would conduct a short interview. After the interviews, they kept our resumes and wanted to call us back. We quickly learned that you need a stable contact number during the job search.

After calling and interviewing at about four more places, we were both offered jobs at a pub located near the London Bridge. It was exactly what you would think of as a traditional English pub. Our manager, his wife, and their two small children had come over from Ireland and they lived above the pub. My friend and I would share a room in their apartment, and essentially become part of the family. We could move in and start immediately. The entire job and house search process took us about five days.

Working in Britain

Our manager wanted my friend and I to run the pub together during the day and then alternate working at night with another bartender. On our first day they put me behind the bar and told me to just do my best and ask lots of questions. Everything was fine until in came the lunch-time crowd. All I remember is loud music, many voices, and people throwing orders at me through the noise and in various accents. But I made it without any major problems, and it took only about a week of on-the-job training before I felt comfortable in my bartender’s job and could really start to enjoy it.

As we settled into our jobs and new home, we found more time to go out and see the great city of London. I benefitted so much from the museums, historical sites, and cultural events because I could enjoy them at a slow pace due to my long stay in the city.

As the summer went on, we found it a bit difficult to travel because we worked almost every day, so my friend and I decided to quit work two weeks early. At the beginning of May, we traveled to Paris and then went on a tour all over Scotland. Finally, we had three more days in London which we spent taking our last admiring impressions of the wonderful city we called home for three months.

Work Abroad vs. Study Abroad

I learned many things by being a part of the British work force. I have studied abroad as well. And in comparing the two experiences, I felt I learned more factual information from study abroad, but I gained better insight into the country’s culture and social system by working overseas.

I was immediately aware of a larger division between the social classes in Britain compared to the U.S. This also translated to the workplace where people are very formal when speaking to their superiors. One man who had just started working for an American company said he was absolutely astounded when the American boss came right up to him, introduced himself, and asked him all kinds of friendly, casual questions. His comment was, “This would never happen in Britain. You can’t be that casual with your company superiors if they even speak to you at all.”

There was also the famous British reserve that I noticed right away. People were less apt to begin a conversation, but I found every British person with whom I did speak to be incredibly polite and friendly. The British are also less likely to complain about customer service. My boss said that from a British perspective, complaining, even though the service may be really bad, is seen as rude and inappropriate. Even as a novice bartender I never had one complaint.

The British people I met were curious about America and asked many questions. I found that a few of them had quite strange views of American culture, associating the U.S. with Hollywood and the Old West. I also found that the British get a lot of American talk shows, and I was asked many times if our society is really that corrupt. I tried to give everyone the most accurate perspective possible, which is all part of the learning experience. I found I learned not only about British culture, but also much about myself, how others view my culture, and why I do things the way I do. This all came from being in another culture and seeing the world from a different perspective. Working in London really changed me and widened my view of the world. It was a priceless experience.

Contact: BUNAC USA, www.bunac.org/usa/, and visit www.bunac.org/usa/brochure for more information on how to apply for its new internship program.